How to Tape a High School Play (Well)




Hey all-
All through my years in High School, I was really involved with the drama program, specifically with crew. Started in construction, moved to running, then to lighting, and now that I've graduated, I was pulled back to help out with lighting and multimedia, since I was really the main guy for all of that when I was there (although I learned it all from a German wizard...).
This year, the Fall Play production was The Crucible, by Arthur Miller, and since I am a film student, I was also tasked with taping the show for DVD. We've had professional companies come in and tape shows before, but usually just the Spring Musical, since that pulls in more moolah.
Anyway, Here is the setup I used, and I submit this for your consideration, in the hopes that you may glean some useful information from it.

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Step 1: Equipment: Intro

I'm not going to make a list of "what you need", since it's entirely circumstantial, and you probably won't have access to what you 'need' (I know I don't.), instead, I'll list what I gathered and how it was arranged in the best way possible.
In addition to your physical equipment, you'll also need to have the basic knowledge required to run the cameras, and optionally, know something about "mise-en-scene" (it's french, don't worry.), which basically means knowing what is visually appealing to the audience (smooth panning, rule of thirds, etc. google it.).
You also may (probably will) need a second or third camera operator, depending on what your setup is.

Step 2: Equipment: Cameras

Yes, plural. Cameras.
For a live action performance, it is important to get as many angles on as much of the stage as you can, so you don't have to tape more than once.
So, gather as many high quality cameras as you can (so no cell phones, genius.)
Keep in mind the "High Quality" part. You want a camera that has the following:
*Manual focus
*Audio inputs
*audio outputs
We'll get to the reasons why later.
This is my gear:
*1 Canon GL2
*1 Panasonic PVGS500
Both of these are 3CCD cameras, meaning they have 3 chips (as opposed to the single one that basic camcorders have), and therefore have higher quality video.
You will also need tripods. For both cameras. If you don't have tripods, it will turn out like crap. Period.

Step 3: Equipment: Sound

Yes, Sound is important.
I don't know why you would EVER be using the camera's built in mic, and especially not from the back of the auditorium.
Make sure your cameras have audio in ports (they're usually red colored), or alternatively, you could record the audio straight into a laptop (using Garageband or similar.)
As far as mics go, the most important thing is to make sure you have good coverage over all areas of the stage at once.
For The Crucible, we had three mics set up: 2 Shotgun mics on the sides, and a single floor mic at center stage. It's not the best idea to use shotgun mics for coverage, since they are very directional and you may have empty areas, but I got lucky and it worked out pretty well for my purposes.
If you have more than one mic, you're gonna want to have a sound board or a mixer to route them through (since the camera can only handle one input, you need to merge them.). Plus, that saves you having to run and tape down miles on XLR cable (get a crewbie to do it...)

Step 4: The Big Picture.

Now, you could run the camera yourself, but I prefer to use the tools i have to get the best result possible.
Below is my setup in "The Crow's Nest", where the spotlights usually are. I mentioned I was doing multimedia as well, well that's why I need to streamline the process, because I've got other crap to do...
The GL2's video is being captured live to an external hard drive, via FCP on an iMac, this speeds up the editing process, (the Panasonic's using DV tapes.)
The sound from the three mics gets routed into the sound board, then out via an XLR/1.25" cable to the Panasonic. I would have preferred to record the audio to the GL2, but it made this obnoxious buzzing when the firewire was connected as well. Oh well, I have another camera...

Step 5: Capturing Live.

So, a major part of this is using Final Cut Pro to capture the video from the GL2 live, without recording to tape. It's completely optional, but I do this to save the two and a half hours I would have spent capturing from the tape, and spend it playing Halo instead.
Here's the Diddly.
1. Make sure you have firewire. Chances are you do, but some people are idiots, so...
2. make sure you have space for the video files. 4 Acts, about 30-45 min long each, that eats up a lot of space, real quick. Just from the GL2, I have 30GB of video,probably 35-40 from the Panasonic bc of audio.
3. Settings: Go to your system settings and make sure your capture scratch is set to your external hard drive, if you have one, or to a folder you specify.
In the log and capture window (cmd-8), make sure under Capture Settings, you CHANGE DEVICE CONTROL TO NON-CONTROLLABLE DEVICE. It was in caps because it's important. Otherwise, you comp will wait for a timecode, which won't come because your camera isn't in playback mode. (you knew that, right?)
You should now be able to hit capture now and sit back. (or head to the next step.)

Step 6: Wrapping Up:

Safety first: Make sure you tape down or cover all of your cables if they're in a walkway. There's nothing worse than killing people who paid for their tickets.

Also, in terms of Videography, make sure that you and your camera operators are communicating. We didn't have enough Clearcom headsets to put my operator on, so I told him before the show to mainly get closeups of people talking, and I would try and get wider angles (since I couldn't be on it constantly, it's easier to just leave it stationary if you're not zoomed in.)
Be aware: If you are taping this for a DVD that parents can buy, please make an effort to not screw up. Their acting should be the focus of the DVD, not your jerky camera moves and erratic zooming. Be professional.

I can't think of anything else, so I hope that you might have learned something new here, and I hope it helps those of you who plan to document your High School's Drama Productions!

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    22 Discussions


    9 years ago on Introduction

    When groups buy the performance rights for a play it doesn't include the right to videotape the performance so you are most likely violating copyright even if you don't sell the DVD. You can't even videotape for purposes of archiving without violating copyright.


    11 years ago on Introduction

    I think it's very important to have clear permission from the author and/or publisher to videotape a performance. Video rights are almost never included in the royalties/performance rights and the school can be held liable for some serious penalties under copyright law. It doesn't matter if you're selling the tapes or not. We've just started to offer videotape licenses for some of our plays, but most publishers are very tight on video permission.

    2 replies

    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    I would say that is up to the drama department heads, not to the lowly student tasked with actually doing the dirty work. I have no specific knowledge on whether The Crucible is under copyright in that fashion any more, but I do know that it's been a year and a half and no one's in jail.


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    Ah, well. That's funny because my school's fall play was the Crucible and our auditorium looks just like yours. Although I suppose they all look pretty similar


    11 years ago on Introduction

    Hi fultron, our school did the Crucible two years ago, I am a freshman now so I wasn't in it. Though I did help with sound and DV during the performances. This was a challenging play with many scenes (sat least our's was) and it helps to have 3 or four cameras with crew to follow actors. This gives you a lot of room for angles and such to choose from... Anyway good instructible.


    11 years ago on Introduction

    So how do you sync up audio video from the two cameras during editing (you're not working with a live video mixer, right?) Will FCP match up the (not identical) audio tracks for you? Ideally, I'd like to sync up video from multiple amateur-class cameras.

    See also
    which is the amateur version (about 1/20th the equipment budget?) but has some tips on the actual photography that apply to better equipment as well.

    I've wondered about putting cameras up on the lighting mounts; doesn't it look a bit weird from the odd position?

    Can your cameras record to tape and output to firewire at the same time? Backups, you know...

    3 replies

    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    You don't have to sync audio. With my setup, there's only one camera actually recording audio. So editing is easy. You just use the one camera's audio track, and sync the video of the other camera to it. You could mount cameras in the electrics or catwalks (where the lights are), but the top-down angle would block off most facial expressions, and it's easier to have all your equipment consolidated in the back, where the audience won;t be distracted by your moving around/snoring. And yes, you can record to tape as well, but that defeats the whole purpose of using a computer in the first place. I personally wasn't sure I had enough tape for two cameras, so the iMac option was my best bet.


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    How far off can your audio/video sync be off and not look like some badly dubbed monster movie? I guess you lucked out by having the audio being recorded on the camera that was doing closeups, right?


    Reply 11 years ago on Introduction

    Audio is only being recorded through one camera, so editing is simple. Use the audio from that camera, and discard the other's.


    11 years ago on Introduction

    Wouldn't it be better to have two to three cameras with a video mixer so that the angles are more interesting for the viewer?

    1 reply

    11 years ago on Introduction

    Interesting read, with good explanations. Also brought back old memories of being an A/V nerd, and spending countless hours watching bad highschool acting.